Powered by cats, hungry for content and run by the people?

“We provide a platform for them to publish their articles on. They come up with the ideas and we just help to market them to a broader audience. ”

That’s how my editor in chief sold the idea of the Typewriter to Spotify provider Daniel Ek at a party in Stockholm. The two discussed how there should be a front end where anyone is capable of bringing an idea forward and a back end that edits, markets and publishes. Journalism and publishing have always had the back end, the gatekeepers that helped to bring about a hierarchical class that often gets referred to as the ‘fourth estate’. But the Internet signals the gates coming down and the death of the intermediary right? We’re living in the era of the ‘fifth estate’ right?

I think the intermediary has a long way to go before it drops out of the blogosphere and in some ways is ultimately making a come back. Let’s look at two examples of intermediaries in particular. The first of particular note is Buzzfeed’s highly successful “community” arm, which is powered by cats, naturally. The second is the viral content aggregator Storyful which aims to be the wire service of the digitally savvy and distributor of the shaky cam footage that all newsrooms seem to crave. This journey into the role of intermediaries isn’t meant to tell us whether they are bad or good for the industry but rather tell us whether or not they still play an assertive role in journalism today and what this ultimately means for the imagined public of journalism and ultimately the broader public.

Let’s think back for a moment to a time when mass media wasn’t ruled by the concept of virality and back when analytics were still an area we were yet to explore. It is important to look at this time in order to understand what caused the downfall of the traditional gatekeepers and why your friend loves telling you that journalism is a ‘profession in trouble’.

Mass communication scholar Eugene Shaw described the press as “informing its audiences of opportunities and warning them of dangers, real or imagined, in their environment and in the rest of the world.” Shaw is talking about an idea amongst media scholars known as “agenda setting” – or in layman’s terms the way traditional gatekeepers have long established the national conversation. What’s on your mind is what you’ve read from the media and what the media is talking about is taken from what’s on your mind. And so a cycle is born where the media influences the public sphere and the public sphere in turn shapes what goes on the air.

Shaw says that it’s not a direct impact but rather a change of our cognition and “it attributes these cognitive changes to be the result of the media performing a gatekeeper or channel role in western democracies.” He believes that the traditional gatekeepers have been able to persuade their publics about what should ultimately be on the public agenda.

German scholar Jurgen Habarmas credits (in part) the traditional gatekeepers of mass media with shaping the first truly public spheres. They may have been a bunch of snooty guys hanging around coffee houses but it was one of the early imagined communities created around the tool of publishing at the time: the printing press.

It would be all well and good to simply say: ‘this is where the internet steps in and that about wraps up the story’ but that wouldn’t quite be how it goes. The downfall of the traditional gatekeeper can trace its roots to the rise of an economy built not on industry or labour but rather one of attention.

“Things get interesting when we realise that our attention crisis is not only our problem,” tech entrepreneur Alex Iskold says. “It is also a big problem for news sites, blogs, search engines and online retailers. Our scarcity of attention hurts their economics.”

In a sense you could call the job of the traditional gatekeeper: “attention setting”. They held your attention because frankly there was nothing else to take it away from them. Traditional gatekeepers had a monopoly on the attention economy because for one you bought the proprietary technology from them. The newspaper acted as a traditional publishers proprietary technology – despite being open to all of the smaller middlemen. However, you did not own the tools that made meaning unless you had a spare couple warehouses and some spare cash to make it rain on the publishing machinery.

So far we’ve established that the traditional gatekeepers played a hand in the creation of a public sphere. Now let’s turn our attention to the first of the non-traditional gatekeepers on the scene and how they’re planning on shaking up the place for your attention.

Nieman lab calls it “the triumph of the social platform”, Alan Rusbringer of the Guardian calls it “the splintering of the fourth estate”, Buzzfeed calls it a “market place of ideas” – put simply we are seeing what many would argue as the democratisation of news and news publishing. Remember that friend of yours that loves calling journalism a “profession in trouble” well they’d also like to tell you that now everyone can do what you do because they have the tools to do it. I want to look at one example in particular Buzzfeed’s “Community” platform and evaluate whether we have really seen the walls come tumbling down or are the gatekeepers trying to secretly rebuild the fence under the cover of darkness and chaos that is Web 2.0?

Nieman lab reporter Joshua Benton credited Buzzfeed Community’s success to the fact that it is “one of the leaders in creating content specifically and solely for social platforms.”

“Buzzfeed wants to follow its users’ attention,” he writes. “And those users are increasingly moving to social platforms where publishers’ old tricks don’t work anymore.”

To go back to the analogy that I left off with the traditional gatekeepers no longer own the proprietary technology. The news is simply just another part of the ever increasing amount of things that our smart phones are capable of doing. As such traditional gatekeepers have to compete just like everybody else for a user’s attention. On the humble smartphone there are two types of social platforms at work today. Those that provide a hub experience that act as the gateway to the rest of the web (Facebook and Twitter) and those that provide an enclosed experience who’s sole job is to keep you on their app. And the trick is to follow the user past the gateway providing apps onto the ones that provide an enclosed experience.

A spokesman for the messaging app Whatsapp told reporters once that essentially: This app isn’t for you [the publishers] and we’re not going to shape it to your needs.

Therefore Buzzfeed has taken a new strategy that traditional hierarchical gatekeepers are largely unwilling to do and that is to create content that lives solely on the social platform. By creating native content on social media platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat they are able to speak directly to followers as if they were another one of their friends. It ultimately gives Buzzfeed reach that it did not have before.

Part of Buzzfeed’s success over traditional gatekeepers is the Community arm’s ability to integrate publishing into the social life. People sign on you create your account and you integrate the way we talk about nostalgia, curate parts of our lives and express ideas into a form that is both entertaining and allows it to reach all parts of the world. It may not quite be the democratization of the internet but it is for the most part a method in which new imagined publics are capable of utilising the tools of publishing and integrating them into their own publics rather than just leaving them to collect in the vast ocean of the web.

Buzzfeed has ultimately understood the way Web 2.0 works and how best to take advantage of the new attention economy. It understands that users want the content accessible instantaneously and the more intermediaries you put in between the user and the content the more potential their is to lose them along the journey.

Although there has been a drop in the power of traditional gatekeepers I am not yet willing to write off the traditional gatekeeper and consigning to the dustbin. There are still examples of traditional gatekeepers who are asserting themselves into the process of publishing in social life. Louisiana State University professor Steve Buttry believes that the traditional gatekeepers of journalism still play a number of roles within the process of publishing in social life today. In particular it is worth looking at the three roles he outlines “aggregators”, “fact checkers” and “curators”.

The viral aggregator Storyful is in my opinion a significant example of how traditional gatekeepers are making their comeback by setting themselves up as aggregators and fact checkers in the process. Storyful in particular targets viral content to see if that cat video that you happen to be watching can be confirmed as news copy worth taking to your editor who runs the newsroom. Clients such as major news outlets like the New York Times are queuing up to pay money for the verification of viral content so they can put it out as part of their daily or nightly bulletins.

Storyful’s founder Mark Little asserts that: “We need to stop being the gatekeepers and find ways to work with the people that used to be our audience.”

However, one could argue that the power to create legitimacy is one of the last tools in the tool kit that the traditional gatekeepers have in their arsenal. You may have a democratization of the tools of publishing but you do not have a democratization of the legitimacy of your publication. And in my opinion that in itself is a form of gatekeeping. By deciding the values for verification and providing legitimacy to content created on the web you are essentially setting up barriers. Storyful through its relationships with organisations Facebook and News Corporation have in essence created a network gatekeeper specifically targeting the flow of viral multimedia content that gets created on the net.

As Rusbringer outlined in his article mass communication without the traditional often hierarchical intermediary is definitely transformative for the web. We can see it in the way publishing platforms are becoming more open to us and are willing to meet us on the social platforms that we utilise on a daily basis. However we can also see that traditional gatekeepers are not licked yet and will continue to reassert themselves within the process of publishing in social life. What is clear is that traditional gatekeepers must find ways to adapt or face the possibility of Strutt’s notion of gatekeepers becoming irrelevant “when the fences blew away”.

References: 

Barlow, A () ‘The citizen journalist as a gatekeeper – A critical Evolution’

Benton, J (2015) ‘The triumph of the social platform’ Nieman Reports Vol 69. (1) pp 46-47

Blair, C (2014) ‘Lessons for Journalists in How Storyful Verifies the Biggest Breaking News’ American Journalism Review, available at: http://ajr.org/2014/07/09/fooled-fake-social-media-step-step-guide/

Buttry, S (2014) ‘Gatekeepers need to find new value when when the fences have blown away’ WordPress [blog] available at:https://stevebuttry.wordpress.com/2012/04/30/gatekeepers-need-to-find-new-value-when-the-fences-have-blown-away/

‘Google and Yahoo as the Next Gatekeeper: Examining Agenda Setting Effects of News Aggregators’ 2011, Conference Papers — International Communication Association, pp. 1-27, Communication & Mass Media Complete

Iskold A, (2007) ‘The attention economy: an overview’ Readwrite available at: http://readwrite.com/2007/03/01/attention_economy_overview

Rusbridger, A (2010) ‘The splintering of the fourth estate’ The Guardian, available at: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/nov/19/open-collaborative-future-journalism

Shaw, E, (1979) ‘Agenda-setting and Mass Communication Theory’, International Communication Gazette, May, vol 25 pp. 96-105

Vu, H (2014) ‘The online audience as a gatekeeper: The influence of reader metrics on news and editorial selection’, Journalism, vol. 15 (8) pp. 1094-1110